How much of what we "know" is legend and how much verifiable history? Round about Christmas time and its conflation of fable and fact around the roots of the Christian story, I begin to wonder about the Massacre of the Innocents. Is there any record of such an event - the slaughter of all children under two years old, recorded only in St Matthew's gospel, as having happened "in Bethlehem and all the coasts thereof...", thus fulfilling "that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet".
No other gospel records the tale. We know that Herod, the Great King of Judea at the time, became insanely arbitrary and cruel towards the end of his life. But such a specific slaughter would surely have found its way into official records of his reign. And if indeed it happened that, and as the New Testament tells, Mary and Joseph were warned by God ahead of time, one wonders why He neglected to warn anyone else. As the literal belief in the Bible seems to be on the increase among devout Christians, it would be good to know what they make of such a story. Legend or history?
David Irving stands accused of trying to start another legend. But he calls it history. When he first began to canvas his views about the Holocaust in the 1970s we all thought he was simply a crazy eccentric and self-regarding egoist in search of a profile. As I recall he was welcomed on chat shows around that time making his extraordinary claims, simply so that we might laugh to scorn his ideas. In the 1980s we would similarly hear sports commentator David Ike, with whom I worked on Newsnight, claim to be a God and predicting the future of the world. It was harmless fun, to listen and then to mock.
David Irving's claims were not harmless fun at all. They were deluded - there was ample evidence of the scale of the Shoah - and dangerous. What's more they had political resonances for people who had an interest in challenging the origins of the State of Israel. Irving would spend his considerable skills at meticulously uncovering records and archive to fuel the political dynamic that would govern the destiny of the Middle East for decades to come.
The tragedy is that a loner, making his name by contradicting the received historical fact, should have, through the conflicting interests he has stirred up, somehow emerge as a champion of free speech. He is no such thing. His supposed wish for a debate on the matter of Holocaust denial was thwarted by his own deliberate intervention in bringing the 2000 libel case against Penguin and the American academic Deborah Lipstadt. The court case has kept him in the limelight as the instigator and promoter of his own destiny. It has not opened any coherent and sustained examination of the evidence.
In fact there can be none. But the legend gathers force among those who would believe. Last week's conference in Iran mustered 67 participants from 30 countries who came together in a mass endorsement of anti-semitic sentiment. Historical accuracy has nothing to do with it. Holocaust denial had become a mindset, believed against all the evidence by those with political intent. Austria's law against Holocaust denial has exaggerated Irving's importance and served to legitimise such a conference. It is right that he has been released; and the law should be repealed.
But the damage is done. Holocaust deniers have a champion and a martyr. The cult will promote the pernicious legend that the Holocaust was far less an event than numerous historical testimonies and records indicate. The Nazis kept meticulous details of their plans. Besides - we, I, have been there. I have seen the gas ovens at Saxenhausen; I have interviewed managers of the German company that produced the Zyclon B gas.
Even so, first reports from those who first entered the concentrations camps refer merely to atrocities. Ed Murrow's famous dispatch from Buchenwald in 1945 doesn't mention Jews at all. We know that great numbers of communists, homosexuals, the mentally defective and gypsies were also targeted by the Nazi. But their loss does not underpin the emergence of a Zionist power. It is the imperatives of history - the emergence of the Jewish state in the 1940s - that has given so much power and emphasis to the horrors of Hitler's Final Solution.
In denying its significance as a defining event of the 20th century Irving has promoted not historical reassessment but naked political conflict. Without such significance, his persistent and deluded beliefs would be no more harmful than to believe Diana was murdered by Prince Philip or that someone other than Shakespeare wrote his plays. As it is Irving has made himself a player in the confrontation that will dominate the 21st century. It is a hideous legacy.Reuse content